Measuring and Predicting Carbon Absorbed in Reforestation and Averted Forest Fires: Problems of Communicating Uncertainty about Landscape Change

Measuring and Predicting Carbon Absorbed in Reforestation and Averted Forest Fires: Problems of communicating uncertainty about landscape change


Karen Holl (UCSC, Environmental Studies)

Maggi Kelly (Dept. of Environmental Sciences, Policy & Management, UC Berkeley)

Tim Forsyth (Department of International Development, London School of Economics)

Over the last few years the contribution of deforestation and forest fires to climate change has come to be of increasing interest, even as new technologies of remote sensing and modeling have made it possible to measure and predict landcover change with unprecedented accuracy. These technologies have made it possible to imagine environmental policies which compensate landowners for averted deforestation (known as REDD, Reduced Emissions through Degradation and Deforestation), or to support thinning forests in order to prevent forest fires. However, increased precision also introduces new problems of communicating uncertainty to policymakers and of gaining the trust of the general public. Professor Holl will talk about the challenges of including tropical forest restoration in proposed markets in carbon offsets, Professor Kelly will talk about her work with remote sensing technologies such as LIDAR in order to measure California forests and to inform the general public about forest conditions. Tim Forsyth is a specialist in political approaches to environmental change and international development, and will moderate a conversation about the challenges of communicating uncertain knowledge about forests to policymakers and other audiences.

February 26, 2013 | 4:00-6:00PM | Engineering 2, Room 599

"Measuring and Predicting Carbon Absorbed in Reforestation and Averted Forest Fires:
Problems of Communicating Uncertainty about Landscape Change"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
26 February 2013
Rapporteur: Martha Kenney, History of Consciousness
Maggi Kelly (Berkeley) spoke about her work on the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management
Project, a collaborative partnership between a UC science team, federal and state agencies, and
the public with the goal of learning how to ensure long-term sustainability of the Sierra Nevada
forest system. Specifically they are looking into the role of fire in forest management. Firesuppression
policies have lead to fuel build-up. The Forest Service developed a “strategic fire
management” plan where fuel treatments would be used on the ground to control the fire.
However, this had only been modeled, not tested. Due to public concern UC scientists were
brought in as a neutral party to investigate the efficacy and impact of the fuel treatment plan.
Kelly was a member of the spatial team who used helicopter-mounted LiDAR (Light Detecting
and Ranging) to measure the efficacy of the treatments. Recent projects for the spatial team
include using LiDAR data to map Fisher (a medium-sized mammal of interest to environmental
activists) habitat and finding the best allometric equations to use LiDAR data to estimate the
forest biomass. One public initiative has been to introduce citizens to virtual forests rendered
from the LiDAR data. This offers one medium to communicate both the potential and
uncertainty of their forest models.

Karen Holl (UCSC) spoke about the opportunities and concerns of the UN’s REDD+ (Reducing
Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) initiative in the context of tropical forest
restoration. Under the REDD+ scheme local people are paid to participate in reforestation
projects. Holl expressed some logistical concerns about REDD+ including how to set a baseline
for how much carbon you have to begin with, monitoring, permanence, and respecting human
rights. In her own project in Costa Rica, Holl learned that it is important where you restore and
how you restore forests. Her team has been experimenting with creating “tree islands,” which
use fewer resources and stimulates natural recovery. Projects such as these help Holl investigate
why there is such variation in the rate of recovery in order to increase the predictability of active
restoration. However, Hall is still concerned about the efficacy of paying farmers for restoration
and that a focus on carbon obscures questions of biodiversity. Because of these misgivings, Holl
argues that forest policies should concentrate on preserving relatively intact forests and to value
carbon, biodiversity, and human livelihoods together.

Tim Forsythe acted as respondent for Kelly and Holl, drawing from his own experience in forest
policy in Asia. Agreeing with Holl he argued that REDD+ offers a strategy to increase forest
cover and reduce carbon, but it does not necessarily or directly address people’s livelihoods and
biodiversity. Other limitations to REDD+ he noted were that under many schemes only
indigenous people are protect, that plantation forests are acceptable for meeting carbon goals,
and that carbon does cost enough (10 dollars/ton) to encourage the kind of reforestation that is
necessary. Forsythe argued that we need new ways of using climate change policy to make better
livelihoods for the people who rely on the forests for income. One alternative he believes offers
a better model is the approach of Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS),
who ask rural people what they need and value in the context of global climate change.

During the question and answer period, questions centered around the uncertainty of scientific
modeling and problems with climate change policy. Kelly spoke about her role as a trusted
liaison (or neutral party) between the public and the Forest Service. Transparency and clear
communication of uncertainty are central to her team’s success, which includes destabilizing the
notion that a map or a model tells the truth. These uncertainties have lead to combining
approaches. For example the LiDAR data about Fisher habitat is correlated with the Fisher team
who monitor individual animals. However, how much the precision of the LiDAR data helps
resolve questions around fire remains to be tested. There are many equations and models and
they need to be checked against data on the ground. Holl explained that in tropical forests there
are so many species that the numbers you plug into equations for wood density require a lot of
guess work. She also explained that when a model is working it doesn’t necessarily represent the
reality of a situation but helps scientists to identify data gaps and to generate hypotheses.
Forsythe was concerned that these model-generated hypotheses don’t travel well and that, in the
context of REDD+, that these hypotheses have scientists and policy makers asking the wrong
questions. He wondered if REDD+ is helpful for the forests or a fast, cheap, and efficient
solution. Echoing the theme of “slow science” that the SJWG has been considering, he argued
that we should pause and ask more people what they would like to do with their landscapes.
From these discussions we got a real sense of the complex relationships between models, data,
policy, and on the ground efficacy happening within forest science in the context of climate